For almost 2,000 years, Christians have been confessing Jesus Christ as God and Savior in the assurance that they knew enough about Him to justify making this confession. From the earliest days of Christianity, its adversaries have repeatedly challenged the facts and doctrines recorded about Christ in the four canonical Gospels and in the great credal statements of the early Church, claiming that they were fraudulent. Even from within the Christian community in the early centuries of our own era, documents claiming to reveal more and other things about Jesus than those four Gospels record have been advanced—things sometimes in conflict with the dogmatic statements of the orthodox creeds. Although Professor Jenkins properly calks them “hidden” (in the sense that they have not received regular attention), for the most part they were not unknown but rather known and found inauthentic or unreliable. However, in accord with the spirit of postmodernity, it is possible to argue that the four canonical Gospels became the standard for Christianity not because of their greater reliability but because of political factors—specifically, the Church at Rome seeking to impose her will on the entire Christian community.
What Professor Jenkins deals with here are not attacks from outside the Faith but the works of people closely connected with Christian scholarship, purporting to show how misguided and mistaken orthodox Christian teachings are. Several times in the past few years, scholars at least loosely attached to Christianity have claimed to have discovered the “truth” about Jesus, usually one that refutes the major tenets of Christian orthodoxy. Such writers as Elaine Pagels, John Dominic Crossan, and—of course —Robert W. Funk of the Jesus Seminar have relied on Gnostic texts and apocryphal “gospels” to show us quite a different Jesus from the Savior of orthodox Christian faith. To the extent that their presentations are taken seriously by readers, they cannot help but undermine traditional Christian faith, making it look like one among many ancient religious fantasies.
The phenomenon of Christians employing scholarship to show that Christianity is based on a misunderstanding is not a new one. The 19th century saw efforts to produce a non-miraculous Jesus—sometimes Jesus the Good Teacher, sometimes Jesus the religious fraud (for examples, David Friedrich Strauss’s Life of Jesus and Ernest Renan’s La Vie de Jesus). Every decade brought new efforts to separate the Jesus of history, the Man as He really was, from the Christ of faith in whom the Church believes. At the beginning of the 20th century, Albert Schweitzer published Von Reimarus zu Wrede (better known by its catchy English title, The Quest for the Historical Jesus), summing up more than a century of such efforts. Schweitzer reached the conclusion that all were in vain. There is no valid historical or exegetical methodology that will permit one to extract a human Jesus, the Good Teacher, from His messianic and eschatological claims as attested in the Gospels. Unwilling to accept those claims, Schweitzer abandoned theology for medicine and went to Africa as a medical missionary.
For the past half-century, we have been treated to a “new quest” for that elusive Jesus, again largely by scholars working within the Christian context. Professor Jenkins’ book takes its title from the repeated claim of the new questers to have found—or, at least, to have exploited—new, reliable, and previously disregarded sources of information about Jesus in the form of noncanonical gospels and other Gnostic writings, sources which in their eyes are more to be trusted than the canonical Gospels themselves. (These are considered less trustworthy on account of their success in edging out or suppressing the noncanonical sources, a nice bit of circular logic.)
Why do Christians engage in this sort of radical reconstructionism, the effects of which can be expected to turn Christians away from Christ and to warn non-Christians not to take Him seriously? Although he does not engage in ad hominem arguments, Jenkins (having pointed out that many of the skeptics were at one time confessing Christians) does speculate on the extent to which their “discoveries” might be motivated by a rebellion against their own past. (One was a minister in the conservative Church of the Nazarene; one, a Fundamentalist in North Carolina; one, a country preacher in Texas; and so forth.)
While the “hidden gospels” are frequently presented as “new evidence,” they were not all that hidden in the days of the early Church. A curious feature, indeed, of most of these “discoveries” is that they are not new at all: What is new is the attention being paid to them by people who claim to be contributing to a better understanding of Christianity’s origins. On the very first page of his text. Professor Jenkins tips us off to this fact by quoting the third-century Church father Origen of Alexandria: “I know a certain Gospel which is called the Gospel according to Thomas and a Gospel according to Matthias, and many others . . . ” Many of the most important Gnostic writers were well known to the early Christians. In fact, for centuries, many of them were known chiefly from anti-Gnostic writing by early Christians, such as the second century Against Heresies by St. Irenaeus of Lyons.
Professor Jenkins writes in a disarmingly courteous style and does not explicitly take a stand for or against the practitioners of the “new quest.” But he does show the extent to which they are turning over fields that have already been plowed many times, leaving the reader to sympathize with Origen’s lines on page three:
[Two apocryphal gospels] and many others have we read—lest we should in any way be considered ignorant. . . . Nevertheless, among all these, we have approved solely what the church has recognized, which is that only the four Gospels should be accepted.
For those readers whose confidence in the Jesus of the canonical Gospels has been undermined, as well as for those who might hope to be taught wonderful new truths by the “hidden gospels”—thus liberating them from bondage to traditional Christianity—Philip Jenkins’ book is a marvelous support, or, as the case may be, corrective.
[Hidden Gospels: How the Search for Jesus Lost Its Way, by Philip Jenkins (Oxford: Oxford University Press) 216 pp., $25.00]
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